CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You might say he who pays the banjo-player calls the tune. The by-now famous “banjo ad” featuring a catchy jingle endorsing North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby has cost the superPAC that sponsored it $1.3 million and counting, the largest part of more than $2 million spent on Newby’s behalf by outside groups.
The “banjo ad” will air more than 1,000 times on TV stations from the mountains to the coast. Other outside groups have bought radio ads, billboards and paid for direct mail in support of Newby.
But a maze of interlocking superPACs obscures the identities of the individuals who ultimately paid for the “banjo ad.”
“I think it’s helpful for voters to know why is X industry giving X candidate hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Brent Laurenz, director of the non-partisan NC Center for Voter Education.
A disclaimer at the start of the “banjo ad” bears the image of former NC Republican Chairman Tom Fetzer. But Fetzer is not the primary funder of the ad. The commercial spot is aimed at increasing name recognition for Justice Paul Newby. But Newby himself did not fund the ad and in the new political landscape of unlimited “independent expenditures,” his campaign has no role in its content.
“I've got no control over who contributes to an ad. I have no control over who endorses me,” said Justice Newby, who said he studiously avoids looking at contributions to campaigns--his own and his opponents. “You've got to put your blinders on like lady justice…You don't see who comes before you. The law is the law--that's the rule of law. You apply it fairly in each case.”
Filings by the superPAC called the NC Judicial Coalition this week show the group has spent a total of almost $1.3 million airing the TV spot, $500,000 of it in just one day, October 22.
Tracking where all that money came from is more difficult. Big chunks come from a few sources:
• $100,000 from RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company
• $163,700 from the NC Chamber of Commerce “independent expenditure” superPAC
• $720,000 and counting from another superPAC calling itself “Justice for All NC”
“Justice for All NC” lists an address belonging to a UPS store and its treasurer is the sister of former gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine, herself a CPA. Its contributors include:
• $560,000 from the Republican State Leadership Group in Washington, DC
• $100,000 from the American Federation for Children, a group supporting charter schools
• $100,000 from the North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, a group pushing for caps on medical malpractice claims
But Newby’s opponent, Court of Appeals Judge Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV, has made the torrent of outside money a campaign issue.
“I'm concerned if we have a large influx of money from either in-state or out-of-state –money that's clearly got an ideological tinge to it—and a candidate is supported on that basis, what does that do to the perceived impartiality of the court system,” Ervin asked.
Tuesday afternoon the conservative Americans for Prosperity announced it is spending $250,000 to blanket the state with a million direct-mail postcards asking voters to “call Paul Newby and tell him to continue standing up for the rights of taxpayers.”
The postcards list the same Raleigh phone number three times. But the phone number rings at the state Administrative Office of the Courts, miles from Newby’s office at the state Supreme Court.
AFP spokesman Dallas Woodhouse said the group got the number from the AOC website, but Sharon Gladwell, a spokeswoman for the AOC, said the office does not take messages for Newby and is not connected to his voice mail. A simple search of the AOC website reveals a discrete number for Newby’s office.
Dallas Woodhouse of Americans for Prosperity says the massive million-piece mailing is paid for by the 501 (c )4 organization and not the foundation and therefore the donations to the “issue ad” are NOT tax-deductable. NBC Charlotte regrets the error from the earlier edition.
Both Newby and Ervin have visited the Charlotte area to shake hands and speak to voters in small groups. Newby has visited churches and the Mallard Creek Barbecue. Ervin visited a Union County Democratic Party rally in Monroe and will shake hands at early voting sites in Charlotte later this week.
But the limited reach of “pressing the flesh” pales in comparison to the flood of dollars spent on billboards, radio, direct mail and especially TV.
Voters best be aware.